Category: Pondering Peace

Zacchaeus – Repentance and Reparations

Zacchaeus – Repentance and Reparations
Luke 19: 1-10

The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19 is a familiar one but offers new insights if looked at from a social justice perspective.  It is an encouraging story because it portrays someone who is benefiting from an unjust system that oppresses and impoverishes others who then recognizes that this is wrong, changes, and seeks to make things right.  How did this happen? And what we can learn for our pursuit of social justice?

The first thing to be noticed is that an accepting relationship is the context for change.  Zacchaeus was not used to being accepted.  As a chief tax collector, he dealt directly with the occupying Roman authorities, agreeing to collaborate with them in sucking money from his own people for the benefit of Rome. Quite naturally, tax collectors were regarded with hatred and suspicion. The fact that Zacchaeus was wealthy only confirmed the assumption that he was using and abusing the system for his own enrichment.

Zacchaeus probably wasn’t sure how Jesus would regard him.  His overwhelming experience with others had likely been rejection.  He was rich but he was an outcast to his community.

One wonders if it was just curiosity that made him want to see Jesus. Or was there something in Zacchaeus that longed for things to be different and that made him determined to see Jesus even if it meant he must engage in the undignified behavior of running and climbing up a tree?  It was humiliating for him to do this, and the local people must have taken delight in seeing him in this awkward position.

Jesus’ response was one of grace to this rich tax collector balancing on the branches of a sycamore tree and peering down at him.  Before Zacchaeus said anything, Jesus reaches out to him and indicates he wants to go to his house – to get to know him, to be in relationship with him, and to have fellowship over a meal.  It was more than Zacchaeus could have hoped for, and as he hurried down the tree his heart was rejoicing.  Despite his status as unclean and an outcast, hated by the town for the predatory behavior that had made him rich, Jesus was honoring him by asking for and accepting his hospitality.  An accepting relationship and the experience of grace is the context for his change of heart and life.

Jesus’ approach to Zacchaeus points out to us the importance of building relationships with those we hope to influence to change in our work for social justice.  Getting to know the other person and letting them get to know us may be far more helpful as an initial approach than calling them out for unjust behavior or making strident demands for change.

Advocacy groups I learn from encourage us to get to know our state legislators and build relationships with them as a prelude to advocacy.  They encourage us to learn about them from their websites before talking with them and to regard them as whole persons beyond the issues at stake. This approach will often yield more beneficial results than one that starts with accusations and demands, which tend to elicit defensiveness.

The second thing to be learned from this story is that when one finds oneself in a position of having hurt others, the first step is to recognize harms done.  When Jesus came to Zacchaeus’ home for dinner, he brought with him his followers who were likely quite poor.  These were the very type of people from which Zacchaeus’ riches had been squeezed.  Perhaps having these poor people in his luxurious home in the presence of Jesus made him recognize the disparity and feel some guilt.

For us too, when we find ourselves in the position of having hurt others, the first step is to recognize the harms done.  Many of us are part of groups that have historically oppressed or taken advantage of other groups, and we enjoy both privilege and benefits from that historical and ongoing oppression. As people of faith, we need to acknowledge this uncomfortable reality.  We need to recognize our embroilment in societal sin.

There is currently underway a disconcerting effort among many in our country to deny the oppression of Black and Native American people that is part of our American history, continues today, and has caused great harm.  There are attempts to rewrite such history or prevent it from being taught in our schools so as to keep some children from feeling guilty.  Such actions do not make things rights.  Rather, the acknowledgement of past and current harms is the first step toward repentance and change, which are the only appropriate means of resolving such guilt.

Not long ago as my daughter was walking her dog Frida past a neighbor’s house, a large ferocious dog attacked Frida, tearing through the flesh on her leg and leaving it hanging.  The owner immediately came out, called off the dog, apologized, and told her to send him the vet bill, as he would take care of it.  An apology was helpful, but acknowledging responsibility for harms done and being willing to pay for medical care helped even more.  When individual wrongs occur, it is clear that reparations are needed to help make amends for injury and to mend the relationship with a neighbor.

This brings us to third thing we can learn from this story – that a genuine acknowledgement of wrongs done and repentance involves reparations.  Zacchaeus immediately recognizes this. Experiencing the unjust state of being wealthy while in the midst of those who were poor, he promises to give half of his possessions to the poor.  Furthermore, he promises to pay back four times that which he had unjustly taken. This took into consideration that harms had continued to accrue from the system of oppression and impoverishment from which he had been benefiting.

I believe that reparations are also needed today, not only at an individual level but also at a societal level. Tremendous harms have been done to Black and Native Americans.  Not only have there been specific harms historically perpetuated but the generational effects have been ongoing disparities in healthcare, life expectancy, wealth, housing, safety, policing, educational and employment opportunities, and so much more.  Reparations are needed to try to make up for generations of racism and oppression so that people are brought to a place of equal opportunity and wellbeing.

Advocating for reparations involves the recognition of our participation in societal sin and expresses our desire to make things right and repair the wrongs.  Zacchaeus provides us with this model of response.  I believe this needs to be part of our calling as we work toward becoming a beloved community where repentance, reconciliation, and justice are a reality.

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS

A version of this blog was originally written as a devotional for the Lenten series Journeying Toward Justice. Here is the link to view that video.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Picture: Traditional icon of Christ and Zacchaeus –